Susan Sontag Biography

Born Susan Rosenblatt, January 16, 1933, in New York, NY; died of leukemia, December 28, 2004, in New York, NY. Author. Essayist and critic Susan Sontag was one of the most widely known figures in American intelligentsia in the late twentieth century. Known as equally for her provocative pronouncements as for her photogenic beauty, Sontag was a leading figure in the cultural debates that swept through her era.

Sontag had a rather bleak childhood. She was born Susan Rosenblatt in 1933 in New York City, but her mother had returned to the United States only to deliver her and then leave the infant with relatives. Sontag's parents were fur traders in China, and neither she nor her younger sister ever met their father, who died in 1938. When their mother returned to the United States and reclaimed the pair, they moved to Tucson, Arizona, because Sontag suffered from asthma, and from there to Los Angeles. Sontag eventually took the surname of her stepfather, a former U.S. Army officer.

Sontag was a voracious reader even as a child, and boasted a formidable intellect by the time she reached her teens. Promoted ahead in school three times, she graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15, entered the University of California at Berkeley for one semester, and then transferred to the prestigious University of Chicago. By then she was a stunning young woman, tall and with long dark hair and dark eyes, and at the age of 17 she married one of her professors just ten days after their first meeting. Dr. Philip Rieff was 28 at the time, and the two had a son together. Before she turned 26, Sontag finished at Chicago, earned a master's degree from Harvard University, and studied at the universities of Oxford and the Sorbonne.

Moving to New York City in the late 1950s after she and Rieff divorced, Sontag wrote for Commentary magazine and taught at various New York City colleges. Her debut novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963, but both that and a subsequent work of fiction, 1967's Death Kit, earned poor reviews. She had far more success with her essays on cultural topics, such as her famous 1964 piece, "Notes on Camp." In it, she defended various aspects of low culture and kitsch, asserting that such works as Snow White serve to, in the end, energize more mainstream cultural patterns. The work established Sontag as a maverick on the fringes of American intellectualism, where the fashion was to deride all forms of popular culture, even film. Sontag participated eagerly in the new wave of music, art, and scenesterism herself, attending rock concerts and appearing in a couple of Andy Warhol films during the artist's experimental-filmmaking era. "Her work, with its emphasis on the outre, the jagged, and the here and now," noted Margalit Fox in the New York Times, "helped make the study of popular culture a respectable academic pursuit."

Sontag continued to shock the established order throughout her career. A 1966 collection of essays, Against Interpretation argued that criticism may inhibit creativity. Often drawing upon European theorists, such as Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Elias Canetti, Sontag was said to have introduced the ideas of both Barthes and Canetti to American readers at a time when their works were not yet widely available in English translation. Her other major work, Illness and Metaphor came out of her bout with cancer in the mid-1970s, and a 1977 book, On Photography, argued that the medium may serve to deaden the senses of the viewer to the suffering of others, in part by allowing him or her to satisfy a curiosity about atrocious acts from a safe distance. That work won her a National Book Critics Circle Award. A 2000 novel, In America, received a National Book Award.

Sontag served as president of the prestigious writers' organization PEN for a time, and was a committed human-rights activist for much of her career. She remained outspoken, even in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. In an oft-quoted essay she wrote for the New Yorker, she chastised the U.S. political leadership for calling the al-Qaeda hijackers "cowards." "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" she fumed in it, according to her Los Angeles Times obituary by Steve Wasserman.

In her later years Sontag was the companion of photographer Annie Leibovitz. Her son, David, became a book editor in New York City at Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and edited some of his mother's volumes. Sontag was undergoing treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia when she died at the age of 71 on December 28, 2004, at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Sources:, (December 28, 2004); Entertainment Weekly, January 14, 2005, p. 18; Independent (London), December 30, 2004, p. 36; Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2004, p. A1, pp. A24-25; New York Times, December 29, 2004, p. A1.

Carol Brennan

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